Obituary: Sir Peter Tennant

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Peter Tennant was a linguist of genius as well as an efficient, unobtrusive organiser of secret war and a successful businessman.

He went from Marlborough to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was senior modern language scholar and took a First in that subject two years later. In 1933 he was elected to a fellowship at Queens', and to a university teaching post. He spoke most European languages well, specialising in the Scandinavian tongues; his ear was so keen and his Swedish so perfect that he could not only pass in Stockholm for a native, but could imitate several regional accents as well. His first wife, whom he married in 1934, was Swedish; this helped.

So able was he that he was earmarked for secret service work if a major war broke out. Gordon Welchman the cryptographer had known him at school, and took him to codebreaking classes in the summer of 1939. When war against Hitler's Germany began that September, the Foreign Office packed him off at a few days' notice to be press attache at the British legation in Stockholm instead. He spent most of the war there, visiting England from time to time by light bomber; press attache made admirable cover.

Charles Hambro recruited him into the Special Operations Executive in summer 1940; they were among its earliest members. On top of his routine duties, nursing foreign and local correspondents - in the teeth of the evidence, in 1940-42 - in the belief that Great Britain was certainly going to win the war, Tennant had several less orthodox tasks.

He was not involved in the unhappy Rickman Affair, when a would-be British saboteur was arrested and imprisoned in April 1940 for possessing plastic explosives, though the Swedish police - already suspicious of him - tried to frame him as an accomplice. He helped George Binney organise two important blockade-running operations, smuggling special steels vital for the British arms industry out of Sweden; he assisted SOE's Danish and Norwegian sections; he helped to distribute itching powder round visiting Germans' clothing and contraceptives; he helped distribute forged leaflets into Germany, and helped Sefton Delmer with material for his black broadcasts to the German armed forces. He had a spy inside the German legation, for whom he secured British nationality and a new life after the war; he narrowly missed a chance to buy the Italian fleet, in the winter of 1940-41.

He was constantly engaged in difficulties with the Swedish security authorities; and sometimes with his own Minister, (Sir) Victor Mallet, a godson of Queen Victoria's who "lost his temper with many of us but forgave and forgot very quickly". The phrase is from Tennant's illuminating book Touchlines of War (1992), published in Swedish three years earlier as Vid sidan av kriget.

In the spring of 1945 the Foreign Office moved Tennant to Paris, where he spent five years with the title of Information Counsellor. This was, again, a propaganda task, but without the clandestine undertones of his work in Stockholm. He left it in 1950 for a two-year spell as deputy British commandant in Berlin; he then moved into business. For 11 years he was overseas director of the Federation of British Industries, of which he was deputy director in 1963-65. For six years he was director-general of the British National Export Council, and thereafter a director of Barclays Bank.

His intellect remained lively; he was an amateur student of Ibsen, on whom he wrote a book (Ibsen's Dramatic Technique, 1947) and an amateur painter, as well as a yachtsman; he also belonged - among other bodies - to the Council for Industrial Design, the academic council of Wilton Park, and the Gabbitas Thring educational trust.

Peter Frank Dalrymple Tennant, intelligence officer, linguist and businessman: born 29 November 1910; OBE 1945; Overseas Director, FBI 1952-63, Deputy Director-General 1963-65, Special Adviser, CBI 1964-65; CMG 1958; Director- General, British National Export Council 1965-71; Kt 1972; married 1934 Hellis Fellennius (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1952), 1953 Galina Bosley (died 1995); died Haslemere, Surrey 22 December 1996.